Early in our Scandinavia trip planning, Janna had come up with the idea of taking a day trip from Helsinki to Tallinn, Estonia. I would never had come up with that on my own, but was immediately intrigued. Frankly, going to a city that would have been unthinkable to visit when I was first learning geography was an attractive prospect. I also liked the idea of being a bit off the beaten track. Though (as I'd find later) Tallinn has plenty of tourist draw, it is certainly less frequented by Americans than places like Paris or Rome. Oddly enough one motivation for visiting Tallinn was no longer there--a Soviet-era amusement park that apparently was a surreal experience but had closed.
I'd also have considered St. Petersburg, except that it would have meant a longer trip--probably not reasonable to do in a single day--and appeared to have a visa requirement. So Tallinn became "baked in" to our trip from the early planning stages. It would be a long day, which was a bit rough just after arriving, but we thought it would be worth it. I already started it out tired; as was typical for me on the first night of an international trip, I was so excited I didn't get much sleep.
Having to catch a ferry, we couldn't sleep in. Having been in Scandinavia before I knew what to expect from our hotel's shower. There was little to prevent water from getting on the floor. In fact some hotels even would provide a squeegee to clean up afterwards. It wasn't too inconvenient as long as one didn't leave any clothes or towels on the floor. On the positive side, most of the showers I encountered on the trip had satisfyingly strong water pressure. The Crowne Royal also supplied bathrobes and slippers, a nice touch. Our accommodations would not always be so fancy.
I always find the term "continental breakfast" to be incongruous, as what gets labeled that in the US is almost always far inferior to what one gets on the Continent. Our included breakfast that day was quite extensive, with a wide variety of hot and cold foods. Perhaps the most unexpected as breakfast foods go, was meatballs, though we'd find variations on that theme at many hotels on the trip. As might be expected in Scandinavia, there were many fish options, including smoked trout and herring with different types of sauce. There were some relatively fancy cheeses including brie. Another treat was soft boiled eggs, something I haven't seen in the US for ages. I was looking forward to eating rye crisps, having enjoyed them slathered with butter on our prior Scandinavia trip, but the ones at Crowne Royal were disappointingly stale.
All in all the breakfast was rather typical of what we would encounter over the course of the trip. There would be variations but the core idea was generally the same. It was always good to have the option to have breakfast. We often didn't know what and when we'd get to eat later in the day, so we filled up to be sure to keep ourselves going, and perhaps be able to save money by going light on lunch.
The hotel had a business center, at which we made a quick stop before leaving, to check weather and check up on Facebook. This turned out to be harder than you'd imagine. Facebook detected we were in the "wrong" country and put us through an extra security procedure of identifying tagged photos before we could log in. However because of friends playing around, many of the tagged photos were unidentifiable. To add to the difficulty, the Finnish keyboard layout was different in several subtle ways, causing us to keep mistyping things.
We wound up with plenty of time to walk to the nearest tram stop, where we'd board the 8 tram to take us to the harbor to catch our ferry. In fact, we caught the tram before the one we'd planned on taking, but since we were unfamiliar with the harbor area, we were glad to have a little extra time.
The tram only took us so far. We could have waited at the final stop for a bus to take us the rest of the way to the ferry terminal, but though it had begun to drizzle we decided just to take our chances walking. It wasn't that long of a walk though construction and the overall industrial look of the area made it less than charming. I was glad that Janna kept her eyes open for the Länsiterminal sign. I would have taken a wrong turn that would have put me on the wrong side of the harbor.
We went right to the check-in desk at the terminal. It was a good thing that we had booked in advance, because the ship was fully booked. But I hadn't paid yet as they wouldn't take my credit card online, so I still had to do this. My credit card was rejected at the desk too. Expecting this I had brought enough cash along, but then had to go to an ATM to get more Euros (the currency in both Finland and Estonia). I came not to trust my credit card after that, and made sure to have enough cash on hand to pay for any anticipatable expense. This was a bit of a drawback, though, as it often meant I couldn't splurge on meals as much as I might otherwise have done.
The ship boarded at 9:45 via a long walk through a crowded tunnel, made loud from the sound of many rolling bags. (On the way back that evening there probably were more people bringing back duty-free booze than there were people with luggage.) The ferry was run by a company called Silja under the branding of Tallink. We'd had a good experience with Silja on an overnight cruise from Helsinki to Stockholm in 2004, so it made a good choice. Our ship was slower than some others we might have taken, but was guaranteed to run whatever the weather, whereas some of the faster options might not. I'd have liked to have tried a hovercraft-like service I'd read of called SuperSeaCat, but it seems to have gone out of business some years ago.
The ferry was different from our prior cruise in one major respect: since it was not an overnight cruise there was just much less to do. If you weren't interested in eating, shopping (particularly for the usual duty-free culprits such as perfume or booze), or perhaps gambling, there was little to pass the time except to find a seat somewhere and entertain yourself. We took a seat in one of the cafes facing a window, with the drawback that it was near to the slamming door of the bathroom. The view was interesting at the beginning of the ride when there were islands to watch, and the end when the city came into view, but less so in the middle when all there was to see was the occasional other ship making the crossing. We did at one point get a snack with the odd name of "Scrack Griss" but otherwise stayed pretty much in place. I spent my time reading about Tallinn, which I honestly didn't know much about in advance. As we pulled into the small harbor we could see first the old-town towers, then some of the later and uglier Soviet architecture.
We didn't make a move to disembark right when the ship docked, knowing we'd just have to wait through a long line to get out anyway. In fact, even after waiting for some time the tunnel to the terminal was quite crowded. I noticed that the staff began cleaning the ship well before everybody had gone; they were clearly getting ready to do a return run as quickly as they could. Had they not been so obviously trying to get ready we might have waited longer. I also noticed that the terminal seemed nicer than the one in Helsinki. In some ways it felt more "Scandinavian", with clean hardwood floors.
The weather forecast had been pretty terrible, but fortunately the rain had dissipated by that point and didn't bother us for the rest of the day. It was a bit chilly and windy, and so I wore a jacket early on. In the end it turned out to be just a bit too warm for the jacket, but too chilly to go without. I'd alternate between putting it on and taking it off throughout the day as I couldn't quite adjust to the temperature.
Our general plan for the day revolved around taking the walking tour of the old city from Rick Steve's Scandinavia book, and we didn't deviate that far from it (usually because we got briefly lost). We had to walk through some of the modern city to get to the starting point. The most interesting thing we passed by was a memorial called "Broken Line", commemorating a tragic ferry accident.
The walking tour started at one of the many towers of the old wall of the town, the "Fat Margaret Tower", so named because it was wider than the others. Other towers had similarly cute names, such as Tall Hermann or Kiek in de Kök. We only got close to a few of these, and never entered any of them, but they were a constant presence as we wandered through the old town. The general route was to walk up Pikk ("long") Street, cut over to the lower town square, then make our way to the upper town for a while, and finally return to the lower town and exit into the modern city. I won't go through the full details of everything we saw during our walk. That would add to an already very long report, and no matter how much detail I went into there would certainly be more that could be said.
It wasn't surprising that through the course of our walk we saw several churches. I had joked about trying to avoid them because it seems that so many times European tourism focuses too much around churches. However, since they were right along our way we at least stopped in each; even paying to get into a couple. The most interesting by far was St. Mary's Cathedral, the "Dome Church". The interior was the most medieval-looking of any, with coats of arms all over the walls. Unfortunately, photography was not allowed. Second most interesting was Church of the Holy Ghost, which also looked and felt old, except for the stained glass windows that looked very much like psychedelic posters from the 60's. The Russian Orthodox church was notable for the number of women who seemed to want to come in to talk with the priest. Least interesting was the Church of St. Olaf. Rick Steve's description rightly pointed out its bland whitewashed interior.
There were a few sites in the city of interest due to their connections with the past Soviet regime, though clearly Tallinn wanted to look both backward and forward beyond that era. 59 Pikk Street was particularly potent as the former KGB headquarters. Since torture was done in the basement, the ground-level windows were blocked up.
The architecture on Pikk Street was generally much more upbeat than this, though, including several very ornate buildings.
Also on Pikk Street to our surprise, were not one but two marzipan shops. Janna, always a big marzipan fan, was delighted, but we it took us until the second shop to find out why there were marzipan shops in the city at all. It turns out that Tallinn has staked a claim to being where marzipan originated. I don't know how accurate this claim is, but we certainly didn't mind visiting a couple of candy shops!
In fact, both were more than just shops; they were in different ways more like museums. In one, people could hand-color their own candy, in the other a professional did it as a demo. Both had displays of marzipan art; the first had an extensive lower-level display room. The subjects were very diverse including pop culture references such as Sponge Bob, more traditional items such as houses, depictions of food, or whimsical pieces such as a mouse pushing a baby carriage made of cheese. Janna ultimately bought a piece shaped like a cat, but it got flattened in her purse by the end of the day.
Incidentally, one other very common type of store was amber shops. They were so prevalent that I assume there must be some connection between Tallinn and amber, but if so we never found out what it was.
It was about lunchtime when we came to the main town square, populated with many tourists and teenage kids on rental Segways. There were plenty of places to eat around the edges of the square, and some more aggressive waiters tried to draw us into a couple.
In the end we decided not to try any of them, instead going to an indoor eatery called Balthasar, which billed itself as a "garlic restaurant". Though it was only a bit after the lunch hour, we turned out to be the only customers. This made it easy to tell when our server was approaching, as we could always hear him walking up the stairs. Apart from that all we heard was the swing and show tunes on the speaker system. I'm not really sure why the place seemed so unpopular. Our second floor room was very nice, had a good view of the square, and the food was decent and not drastically overpriced.
We didn't get a complete meal. Instead, we just got an appetizer and some soups. The appetizer was the "Garlic accessories", with four different preparations of garlic: Olives stuffed with garlic, a garlic olive past, stuffed prunes, and pickled garlic cloves. The waiter called the tapenade "hot stuff" but we didn't find it all that spicy. He brought plentiful portions of three types of bread to spread the tapenade (and some very good butter) on. For my soup I chose a spicy meat soup with egg noodles and garlic yogurt. It was pretty good. Janna's soup was a root celery and garlic soup with roasted bacon and parsley pesto. I also got a beer. On the recommendation of Rick Steve's book I got Saku Tume, which turned out to be a somewhat standard dark beer.
Perhaps feeling guilty about not having gotten a full meal, we let ourselves be talked into trying a dessert. Janna had joked that they'd have garlic cake, but turned out not to be that far off the mark, as they offered garlic ice cream instead. I couldn't resist trying it. It was certainly nothing I ever would seek out, but it wasn't as bad as it might sound. Janna's went for something somewhat more standard, a rhubarb and strawberry sorbet.
Back on the main city square, one of the more interesting sites we visited was the Raeapteek, billed as the oldest apothecary in Europe. There was an actual store selling the wares, which looked quite a bit like an old soda shop, and a museum in the next room over. Here we saw brightly colored fluids in bottles, dried herbs, and a table with a variety of interesting oddities including "parched bees", "wood louse infusion", "sun bleached dog faeces", "dried deer penises", and "earth worms in oil". An unlabeled jar appeared to contain a dried hedgehog.
Old Tallinn is divided into two halves based on elevation. Most of what I've described so far was in the lower town. The upper town had a slightly different character, with more courtyards and gardens to walk through, and two scenic overlooks. It also seemed to be associated with Estonian governmental functions, having several embassies, the executive building, and the parliament building (the latter a strange shade of pink).
The end of the tour took us to a more modern section of the city called the "Rotterman quarter". I was quite disappointed; it gave me no impression of charm or uniqueness as the old city had.
Once our tour was over, we had to seek out a place to eat dinner. It was easy to eschew ridiculously touristy places like Olde Hansa (complete with the jester maître d'). Instead, having spotted an ad for an Azerbaijani restaurant in a brochure Janna had picked up on the ferry, we decided to give it a try. It was called Ses-Bes (with ˆsymbols over each letter S) and was located in the modern part of the city. Perhaps because of this, I found the prices to be quite reasonable, much more so than I'd expected from the places in the old city.
I had another local beer, "A Le Coq premium", which was somewhat lighter than the Saku Tume had been, but a bit more to my tastes at the time. As a starter I had a kufta soup, a hearty broth with a meatball, potatoes, onions, and chick peas (which were just listed as peas on the menu, to a bit of confusion on my part). For my main dish I had "lamb pilau", by which I think they meant pilaf, as the pieces of lamb were served on a bed of rice. There was also a kind of cabbage salad, tomatoes, and cucumbers. I thought the cucumbers tasted quite fresh.
Janna got a kebab, which was more than the gyro meat that sometimes goes by the name of kebab in Scandinavia, but it was still not served on skewers. One kebab variety that intrigued me (but not enough to change my order) was mincemeat in a kind of roll. Janna chose pork.
The meal was pleasant enough, but it took up time. By the time we were done, we really couldn't do any more exploration of the city and just had to head back to catch the return ferry. I was surprised at how much time we'd been able to spend in Tallinn. Originally we'd considered taking an earlier ferry back, knowing that the late ferry would mean a very long day right after a travel day, but in the end we made the right decision, as we'd have had to really rush through the city otherwise. (In fact we'd seen the earlier ferry leaving while we were at one of the overlooks.) I had expected with our extra time that we could visit a park called Kadrioru near the waterside that I thought looked like it would have been nice, but we simply didn't have time for it.
In all, Tallinn made a very pleasant day trip. It had a real "old town Europe" feel to it that some of the larger cities in Europe have in more limited doses. It's a bit off the beaten track so I don't know if I'll get there again, but if I do, I might consider staying overnight next time, just to get a little more time in.
There's not much to say about the trip back to Helsinki; we slept for most of the two hours it took. This time we did want to make sure to leave the ship promptly because we needed to catch a bus. If we were too late we might have a very long walk ahead of us, and even if we caught the bus we expected it to be crowded, so getting on early would be to our benefit. In fact we had no problems getting out in front of the crowd, and even though we initially boarded the wrong bus (15 rather than 15a) we got a seat all right. I think the bus line probably runs according to demand more than it does according to a schedule because the demand from the ferry is so high.
It was difficult to know quite where we should get off the bus. It was crowded and it had finally gotten sufficiently dark outside that it was hard to look out the windows to get a sense of where we were, even if we were more familiar with the city. We took our best guess at where to get off, which turned out to be precisely right!
We still had a bit of walking to do to get back to the hotel. While walking along the major street Mannerheimintie we passed by the impressive classical Parliament building, though we didn't know what it was at the time. We took a couple of pictures, which was remarkable since the sky was still light enough to do so at 11:30!
It was a long and exhausting, yet rewarding day. We took some chances in scheduling a ferry trip a day after arrival, spending such a long time in Tallinn, and arriving back in Helsinki late, but it all worked out well. Our good fortune with smooth travel arrangements continued.
This post is one in a series. For the other installments, see: